‘Late Show’ Colbert still plays character
Comedy super-fans and self-appointed late-night talk show critics Elena Wandzilak and Katharine Jaruzelski sat down to analyze the first week of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
EW: At first watch, “Late Show” is very similar to other late night shows. I assumed it would be the same setup, but he had joked that the monologue may be gone, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. For this first week, at least, it follows the same overall structure: monologue to desk piece to interviews to musical guest, with some bits thrown in.
KJ: Yes, but the topics he covers and the way he covers them are very different. There’s definitely more of an emphasis on politics, versus someone like Jimmy Fallon, whose shtick is playing games with celebrities, or Jimmy Kimmel, who loves pranks and viral videos. I also think Colbert is strongest in his desk pieces—that’s the kind of style he honed on the “Report,” and it’s where he seems most comfortable on “Late Show.”
EW: I agree. Out of all the late-night players, he reminds me of Seth Meyers the most, especially when it comes to desk pieces. Meyers just moved his monologue to his desk, reminiscent of Weekend Update, where he thrived. Colbert’s desk pieces feel similar in terms of tone, and I really enjoyed these segments and looked forward to them every night. Because both Meyers and Colbert tackle politics more than other late-night hosts and both come from sketch backgrounds (not stand-up, like Letterman or Leno), these desk pieces work for them and showcase their skills in the best way.
KJ: At the same time, he’s definitely starting to develop some bits that will probably become recurring, but so far they’re not great. The second episode had a bunch of these. First, there was his weird “The Hat Has Spoken” segment, where he basically just put on a funny hat and shouted things at the audience. He also introduced a bit for his celebrity guests called “Big Questions with Even Bigger Stars,” where he lied down on a blanket under the stars with Scarlett Johansson and they asked each other faux-serious questions. Both bits highlighted Colbert’s weird, offbeat style, but they still kind of fell flat.
EW: I think what I will tune in for most is the interviews, which isn’t always my approach to late-night viewing. Colbert is smart and has become great at interviewing over the past 15-plus years, if you include “The Daily Show.” While he was in character for most of that, he still managed to get honest answers out of his guests. He isn’t afraid to ask them serious questions or challenge them. Will he be able to continue this with movie stars and “celebrities” who may not be used to coming on late-night talk shows to talk about faith, politics or human rights? I loved the interview this week with Joe Biden because it was completely different from what we’ve seen on late night before. I was literally crying.
KJ: Agreed. Particularly with politicians, whom he has a lot of experience interviewing on the “Report,” Colbert is great at getting genuine answers out of his guests rather than just typical talking points. Colbert’s interview with Biden went to a place that few other late-night shows have ever gone before. I also really liked his interview with Jeb Bush on the first episode. The interview was very funny, and Colbert still got in plenty of digs at Jeb’s campaign and the Bush family, but at the same time, it’s clear that Colbert is still interested in humanizing his guests and giving them a platform to speak about what’s important to them. I’m excited to see what he does when Donald Trump comes on in a few weeks, especially since he’s been hilariously ragging on him all week.
EW: I think that there were a lot of expectations of Colbert going into this first week of shows. Not only was he replacing David Letterman, who has been such a staple of the late-night and comedy scene, but he was also coming from his own award-winning show. Colbert invested early on, releasing promo videos and podcasts over the summer to help shape the tone of the show, so we were eased into the idea of Stephen Colbert as “real” Stephen Colbert and not the conservative political pundit Stephen Colbert.
KJ: People seemed really concerned about how Colbert could possibly perform without his conservative character, but so far, “Late Show” Colbert doesn’t even feel all that different from “Report” Colbert. He’s no longer playing an antagonistic, right-wing blowhard, but he’s still playing this offbeat, slightly arrogant host. As he said to Jeb Bush in the premiere, “I used to play a narcissistic, conservative pundit; now I’m just a narcissist.” Also, Colbert’s new, high-profile hosting gig hasn’t stopped him from subverting late-night tropes, which is awesome. On the “Colbert Report,” he did this with his over-the-top character, and on the “Late Show,” he sort of goes in the opposite direction by breaking the fourth wall and blatantly addressing the role of a late-night host.
EW: If anything, Colbert as host of “Late Show” forces viewers to think about the role of the late-night host, who isn’t just “being himself,” but playing a character. When Colbert started a desk piece on politics in the third episode by saying, “I don’t play a political pundit anymore, but as an actor, I can still pretend to care about the latest developments in the presidential race,” we are reminded that this show is created and written by a whole staff of people, with Colbert merely serving as the spokesperson. While he isn’t playing the same character that he did on the “Report,” he’s making it abundantly clear that every late-night host is still a character, whether we like to think so or not.
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” airs Monday through Friday at 10:35 p.m. on CBS.